Lib Dem leadership election rules: setting the rules to maximise the benefit to the party

The Federal Board (FB) met on Saturday to agree the election timetable for electing someone to succeed Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Full details will be going out to party members during the week, so rather than duplicate that information I wanted to pull out a few of the pieces of thinking behind the decisions which have been made. All the more so as there is a very widespread range of views amongst party members as to how long the ideal leadership election contest would be. Whatever the FB decided, they’d be a chunk of members who think it is wrong.

The election regulations as passed by party conference give limited flexibility over the length of the contest (“the timetable for the election shall be no shorter than 8 weeks and no longer than 13 weeks” say the rules).

For me (and others) one of the key points was to have the close of nominations as late as possible in the process. That is because this is also the cut-off date for eligibility to vote in the contest. The later that is, the more time that gives all parts of the party – from central HQ through to local branches – to maximise the benefits for our long-term strength of recruiting and renewing members with the extra hook of getting a vote in the contest.

The Federal Board also gets to set the total spending limit for the contest and the cap on individual donations. (Travel and subsistence costs do not count against the spending limit.) My consistent view for party contests is that we want to encourage candidates to run active, intensive campaigns – as that both tests out their campaigning ability and also maximises the information which members then have when deciding how to vote.

Moreover, testing out fundraising skills is a valuable part of an internal contest – the people who win them (leader, president and public candidates) can all play important roles in our fundraising and the party is better if we have people who appreciate its value and can successfully lead teams that make fundraising happen. Fundraising is not a zero-sum game – having rules which benefit those who can lead effective fundraising doesn’t take money away from our other fundraising; rather it means we get people in place who are good at amplifying it.

But we also need to protect against rich people being able to simply self-fund or against rich people being able to exercise undue influence. That is why I prefer relatively high spending limits combined with relatively low limits on the amount any one person can donate.

Our old limits would have both allowed candidates to spend less than 50p per voter (a very low sum) but also would have meant they could max out their fundraising for items that count against the limit by raising the maximum from just 10 people. The new limits, to be detailed in the information going out to members in the next few days, will radically alter that, cutting radically how much any one individual can give and allowing more to be spent overall – so getting much closer to having a system where the people who can inspire widespread small donor support (just the sort of people we need winning such contests) get an advantage over those who know a handful of rich people.

Add this to making the close of nominations late rather than early, and I think we’ve agreed on a set of rules which will help the party’s grassroots and financial strength – things which we most definitely need.

UPDATE: The timetable has now been published. Here are the key dates:

  • Opening of nominations June 25th
  • Closing of nominations July 20th (4pm)
  • Dispatch of ballot papers August 16th
  • Deadline for ballot papers to be returned September 11th (5pm if by post or by hand; midnight if electronic)
  • Count and declaration of the winner September 13th

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